Behind the scenes with Irmela Mensah-Schramm

My article about Irmela Mensah-Schramm, a Berlin woman who's spent the past thirty years altering and removing rightwing graffiti in Germany, came out in the Financial Times today. Although I wrote in the article about the challenges that Irmela faces in the course of her missions, I didn't have the opportunity to describe the encounters that I personally witnessed during the afternoon I spent with her, and how she responded to altercations with irate bystanders and with the police (spoiler alert: she responded with nothing short of sheer badassery).

I met Irmela in Zehlendorf, an upper-class former-West neighborhood, all villas and apartment blocks hastily erected in the 1950s to accommodate the American military members living near the airbase there. She's a short woman with white bobbed hair, glasses, and a canvas tote bag on which she's written "Gegen Nazis" (against Nazis) in Sharpie. She immediately brought me and my husband Nate (the photographer) to a scrawled marker pen message on a column in a walkway next to the subway station: "Islamismus muss raus." (Islamism must go). Smiling and chatting, Irmela brandished her own pen and changed the graffiti to say "Islamophobia must go." To tackle another "Islamismus muss raus" on a nearby street sign, she clambered up on a cement wall. "Not bad for a seventy-year-old, eh?" she said, grinning.While Irmela was removing and altering these Sharpied messages, I noticed she was attracting dirty looks from several of the people passing through the walkway. She ignored them, for the most part, rolling her eyes at me when she received one particularly foul grimace.

Once she'd finished with the anti-Islam graffiti, Irmela asked us to take the bus with her to another part of Zehlendorf, where she'd heard someone had spray painted "Merkel muss weg" (Merkel must go, a rightwing slogan) on a cement wall. En route, she showed us a stack of photographs of all the graffiti she'd found lately, as well as pictures of her cats and pictures of her favorite flowers she'd seen that spring.

We hopped off the bus on the side of a road running parallel to the highway leading out of Berlin. The road cut through one of the birch and red-pine forests on the city's western edge, with high-rise apartment buildings along one side. On the far side of the highway, we could see the now-decommissioned checkpoint that had divided West Berlin from East Germany in the days of the wall.

Irmela pulled out her pink spray can and bent to work. She explained that she was changing "Merkel muss weg" to "Merke! Hass muss weg!" (Remember! Hate must go!) But while she worked, a middle-aged man in a black jacket appeared from the park around the high-rise apartment building. "What are you doing?" he asked her. He threatened to call the police. He aggressively asked me who I was, why I was taking notes, why Nate was taking pictures. He threatened her.

And she did not care.

She told him to call the police. "They know who I am," she proclaimed. She waved him off, kept spraying. Another woman pulled off the highway to scream at us and take pictures, presumably for evidence. Unfazed, Irmela finished what she was doing and led us into a pedestrian tunnel under the highway off-ramp. As we walked through, she noticed another, "Merkel muss weg" on the cement wall. She pulled out her spray can.

Then the police officer showed up.

He asked what we were doing, why we were vandalizing the tunnel. He took all of our identification cards (Irmela threw hers on the ground at his feet instead of handing it to him). He escorted us out of the tunnel. He told me that it angered him personally that Irmela had defaced the tunnel, since it's very expensive to clean off graffiti. "Then where were you when this said 'Merkel muss weg?'" Irmela shouted at him.

The officer called for back-up, two younger officers in a car. Nate texted four of our friends: "We are about to be arrested. Call us in an hour to make sure we're not in jail." After some confusion, some frenzied radioed conversations, the older officer left, leaving his two colleagues to deal with us.

And over the course of the next ten minutes, I watched Irmela completely and utterly charm them.

She showed them her photographs of the graffiti she had defaced. She pushed them, kindly but firmly, into saying what they thought of each of the defacements. "Should I have vandalized this slogan?" she asked. "How about this swastika? What do you think? Come on, you agree with me, don't you?" I watched the officers' body language relax into sympathy and identification. "All right, personally, I agree with you," one of them finally conceded. "I just have to do my job."

They eventually let all of us go, but told Irmela they would have to send her a fine in the mail. We climbed on the bus to the next subway station, Irmela excited but unfazed. She grabbed both our hands and squeezed tight before we caught the train back to East Berlin and home.

Over the course of the summer, Irmela and I stayed in touch as I finished the article; she told me about the other graffiti she's found, the "Fuck Asyl" (fuck asylum seekers), the new "Merkel must go," the swastikas and the 88, which is a neo-Nazi symbol for the Heil Hitler salute.

Germany is, for obvious reasons, a country that understands the dangers of the creeping and insidious power of fascist and xenophobic discourse. "Citizens! Do not allow the intellectual and soulful climate of our country to once again become poisoned by right-wing nationalist ideology!" read a sign outside an art school in Dresden that I saw earlier that spring. Germany also understands the power of stickers, stamps and other ephemera to influence public opinion and political discourse; I learned about Irmela in the first place at an exhibit at the German History Museum about that very subject. Irmela is an example of someone who understands all of this and who long ago decided that she cared more about shaping this discourse than about following the law or even her own personal safety. She refuses to take the safe road, to defer to any authority other than her own system of graffiti removal and alteration that she designed thirty years ago. She started seeing these symbols, and now, she can't stop.

This is the right way to LARP the Victorian era

So I think we can all agree: it's kind of the worst that that couple who's chosen to live in the 19th century haven't acknowledged that the Victorian era was rife with social problems, racism, poverty, sexism, and all that decidedly non-cosplay-worthy stuff.

But I'd also like to point out that, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, the Chrismans have chosen to embrace all the LAMEST parts of Victorian times, while ignoring all the awesome parts. Let me put it this way: when I read Victorian novels, I don't read them for their celebration of virtuous bourgeois morals.

Basically, what I'm saying is that if I were going to LARP the Victorian era, it would look something like this:

Portraits of his first wife hang all over the manor. When I hurry through the halls at nights, the portraits' eyes follow me.

Once I'm out from under my governess' thumb, I'll start wearing bloomers and reading shocking novels, like a regular Gibson Girl.

I wander the cliffs by the seawalk on foggy nights, crying out for my lost lover. As the years go by, I start to wonder: was he ever a man, or was he always a ghost?


The plucky journalist knocks on my door, requests an interview. "Aren't you worried that your involvement with the suffragette movement will damage your reputation?" she asks. It's only after we become fast friends that I discover that she has a terrible secret of her own.

The cemetery calls my name at night. I've started to answer it.

I take a hansom cab to the East End. I'm late for a mysterious meeting at an opium den in the docklands.

The spiritualist's eyes widen, fearful, when she touches my hand.



Sale: Hungry Ghosts to Black Static

I'm so pleased to announce that I've sold my short story "Hungry Ghosts" to the superb British horror/dark fantasy market Black Static. This is my first sale of 2015 and the first time I've sold a story that takes place in my homeland (my homeland referring in this case to the forests of northern New England).

The story is currently slated for release in March, both in print and online. It's a story about alienation and fitting in (or not) and family curses and the particular nature of New England ghosts. The haunted house in the tale--all faded wallpaper and creaking floorboards--is based on a house where I once lived, outside Boston. I hope you all like it (the story, not the house. The house was both a miserable and magical place to live).

Sale: The Firebird

Today I found out that my short story "The Firebird" will appear in the forthcoming anthology Steampunk World, edited by Sarah Hans. The philosophy behind this anthology is that steampunk should be more inclusive and not simply focus on Victorian England. And while anyone who knows me knows I have some serious Victorian England love, I also completely agree that steampunk--and every genre, for that matter--should branch out and focus on other cultures and settings. So I was very excited to hear about this anthology, and I am even more excited to learn that my story is going to be a part of it.


This news was especially exciting for me because "The Firebird" is my first published story that takes place in Russia. I've been fascinated by Russia since I was a child, and my first trip overseas was on a three-week Russian exchange program in high school. This story takes place in the city where I stayed on that exchange program. Veliky Novgorod is one of the oldest cities in Russia, situated on the road between St. Petersburg and Moscow. It's ringed in by a kremlin, presided over by the gold domes of St. Sophia Cathedral. The image to the right is a postcard I purchased when I first visited eight years ago, showing St. Sophia's. The image above the postcard is a word cloud I made of "The Firebird" (by "I," I mean Wordle). The story takes place in the later years of the Russian Revolution, and involves revenge, romance, a Russian countess with a jewel-encrusted brass bird tail,  a revolver-cuff, and lots of snow. To write it, I read the book Former People, by Douglas Smith, an account of what happened to various members of the Russian nobility during and after the Revolution. I gathered plenty of fascinating details from that book for this story, and I would encourage anyone who's interested in this period to read it.

At any rate, I'm very excited for this story to appear in Steampunk World. The anthology is being funded by a Kickstarter campaign; more details on that to follow.

Hello to the wide world of blogging

I can no longer contain myself: it's time to start blogging.

I've wanted to start a blog about my nascent writing career for awhile, but the time never seemed right. It's easy to stumble into the rabbit hole of productive procrastination (and I am quite the expert on procrastination) and spend too much time blogging about writing and not enough time actually writing.

But at the same time, blogging can be a great way to keep in touch with other writers. I also think it's important for writers to chronicle our careers, to talk about the pitfalls and successes and truths of the trade. A year ago,  I was determined to embark on a fiction writing career but had few connections, no beta readers, no guarantees I was going to get into a workshop for the summer of 2013, and no idea how to push forward with my career. Reading blogs by other writers in various stages of their careers was invaluable for me as I sorted out how to proceed into the mysterious world of fiction writing.


So I weighed these pros and cons, and decided I would allow myself to start blogging when I made my first pro-rate short story sale. And, lo and behold, at the beginning of the month Michael Bailey of Written Backwards bought my short story "A Guide to Etiquette and Comportment for the Sisters of Henley House" for the Chiral Mad 2 anthology. I am, needless to say, extremely excited about this, and I've decided that now is finally the right time to start blogging.

On this blog you can expect to read about my fiction writing career; thoughts about the art and craft of writing (especially the three-act structure. I have MANY thoughts about the three-act structure); my travels and how they inspire my fiction; books I'm reading; my obsession with the darkly beautiful and the macabre; and, occasionally, my other interests: fiber arts and running.

So welcome! Let us embark on this strange and haunting journey together.